Organizers of the Count My Vote ballot initiative are retooling their proposal to keep Utah's current dual track system for candidates to get on the ballot.
The changes come after a series of public hearings on their initial proposal, which would have completely done away with the caucus system in favor of direct primary elections.
"What we heard in those meetings is that voters really like having multiple options and more choices," said Count My Vote executive director Taylor Morgan.
The new initiative language keeps Utah's current system for how candidates get on the ballot. That means they can gather signatures and political parties can nominate candidates at their conventions. Or, a candidate can hedge their bet and use both paths just like newly elected Rep. John Curtis and Gov. Gary Herbert in 2016.
Parties will still be allowed to set whatever process they want for candidates who choose to use the caucus/convention system to get to the primary election.
That's the main difference from the previous initiative proposal. The other major changes from the original CMV remain the same.
The bar for candidates who gather signatures to get on the primary ballot is much lower than currently in SB54. The new threshold is just 1% of the number of registered party members in their district, or statewide for offices like U.S. Senate, Governor or Attorney General. The previous requirements were, in the opinion of CMV backers, too onerous.
The new 1% means a statewide Republican candidate would need about 7,000 signatures instead of the 28,000 under the current law. A Democrat running in a statewide race would only need about 1,700.
Legislative races would need somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 or so for a House race and maybe 200 for a Senate contest.
U.S. House candidates would need about 1,800 for a Republican and just 500 for a Democrat.
Candidates can start gathering signatures on October 1 the year before an election. Those signatures would be due on the first Monday in March, giving candidates a full five months to meet that requirement.
The primary election, if needed, is moved to the first Tuesday in June. Previously, it was held on the fourth Tuesday.
A candidate decides if they belong to a particular political party by registering as a member of the party. Parties do not get to make that decision.
The new initiative also keeps the runoff election procedure from the previous version. A candidate wins the primary election if they get 35% of the vote or more. If no one gets to the 35% threshold, the top-two candidate advance to a runoff election that will be held on the second Tuesday in August. The runoff procedure would only come into play in primary elections with three or more candidates.
Under SB54, parties that allowed candidates to use both paths to the primary ballot were considered "Qualified Political Parties," while those that did not allow signature gathering were merely "Registered Political Parties." That meant nominees of Registered Political Parties would not appear on the general election ballot with a party designation next to their name, which is essentially independent or write-in status.
The new CMV does away with all of that. Signature gathering is the default way to get on the ballot. The caucus/convention route is optional.
Morgan says the SB54 compromise is still endangered. The 2017 legislature attempted to repeal SB54 on the final day this year, and the Utah GOP moving forward with their lawsuit against SB54 despite repeated attempts to send the legal challenge.
"SB54 continues to be attacked, so we need the voice of the people to affirm, once and for all, that they strongly support this process," he said.
Keeping the caucus/convention system as an option for Utah voters is a major concession as polling consistently showed Utahns supported the direct primary method for nominating candidates.
"Count My Vote has always been about choice and inclusion," said Morgan. "We want to preserve a meaningful role for political parties, and provide maximum choice for candidates."
Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes told UtahPolicy Wednesday night he’ll take the newly revised CMV petition over their old one.
But even though the new petition follows SB54 – the dual-path compromise approved by the 2014 Legislature – Hughes, R-Draper, is not ready to endorse CMV should it make the 2018 ballot.
“I need to read it – the new language,” and talk with other members of the Utah House, he told UtahPolicy.
The new initiative dual-path “is better than” eliminating the caucus/delegate/convention process altogether, said Hughes – which is what the 2014 petition and the earlier version of the 2018 version both would have done.
If CMV had stayed the same and passed in 2018, “there really was no role for political parties in Utah,” he added.
He worried that then local, greatly-weakened parties would just become like “their national brand.”
“And I don’t believe either the Republican or Democratic Utah political parties” do now, or would in the future, want to reflect their national parties, the speaker added.
Given his druthers, Hughes would prefer that more citizens would pick a political party and get involved in the grassroots – attend March neighborhood caucus meetings, pick a good county and state delegate who would “in good conscience” vote their neighbors’ candidate preferences in the convention.
“That’s the closest representative to the people,” said Hughes.
Hughes said the House, both Republicans, and Democrats, should take a lesson learned from severe opposition to SB54: The Legislature should stay out of telling political parties how to pick their nominees.
“We (the Legislature) should not be in the business of saving any political party from itself. If we want to engage in the future, it should be on the side of unifying behind our own political party – standing with it.”
Count My Vote leaders have already said that in this, their second, attempt at getting a petition before voters, they are not interested in trying to cut any kind of compromises with the Legislature again.
And, at least for Hughes, it doesn’t sound like he’s interested, either.